In Good Conscience

World Cup custodians keep the faith, honouring Yashin's legacy

Staging the draw ceremony inside the Kremlin politicises the World Cup as never before.

Forget corruption, racism, homophobia and hooliganism. Leave aside the debate over Russia being barred from the Olympics because of state doping. Turn a blind eye to the former Fifa officials on trial in New York for taking millions of dollars in bribes to vote for Qatar 2022, and probably Russia 2018.

The show, and the trials, go on.

For those who prefer play to politics or pay, there is some relief that the official poster centres upon a man who truly represented the game.

It depicts Lev Yashin, the most famous player in Russian football history, reaching up to make a save.

Athletic, acrobatic and commanding, Yashin dressed from head to toe in black, or darkest navy blue. The poster portrays him leaping to his left to reach the ball, which is depicted as the world.

Lev Ivanovich Yashin was the first - and only - goalkeeper to win the Ballon d'Or. His fellow professionals honoured him in 1963, not simply for his athleticism but for the way that he organised his defence.

He was revolutionary in his role, just as Germany's Manuel Neuer is credited today with creating the "sweeper-keeper" mode.

Goalkeepers are often solitary men, and not everyone's cup of tea because their job is to deny goals.

Yashin, the "Black Spider", kept 270 clean sheets in 812 games. His record of 151 penalty saves still stands, and Fifa marked his 20-year career with a testimonial in which Pele, Franz Beckenbauer and Eusebio played.

The game in 1971 attracted 100,000 fans in Moscow's Lenin Stadium.

Yashin had represented Dynamo Moscow from 1950 to 1970, and later worked in the administration department. Because Dynamo were the club of the Soviet Ministry of Internal Affairs, suspicious minds concluded that Yashin must have been a member of the KGB.

Yashin, the "Black Spider", kept 270 clean sheets in 812 games. His record of 151 penalty saves still stands, and Fifa marked his 20-year career with a testimonial in which Pele, Franz Beckenbauer and Eusebio played.

According to his widow Valentina Yashina, nothing could have been further from the truth. Whenever Yashin played abroad, he was shadowed by minders his wife referred to as "teachers from the physical education school".

Vladimir Putin did rise through the KGB. Lev Yashin rose simply through sporting ability.

He was a flawed man who smoked heavily and liked vodka. He had a leg amputated because of blood clotting in 1986, and died in 1990, at the age of 60.

Gone; never forgotten.

When the goalkeepers line up for their nations next year, who if anyone might come close to Yashin's stature?

Gianluigi Buffon, alas, will not be there. Buffon has just said that even when he is 60 he could never turn down any call "because I have in me the concept of nation".

Buffon played 175 times for Italy and won one of his four World Cups. But Italy failed to qualify this time.

The top four goalies heading for Russia next year are, in my view, Neuer (Germany), David de Gea (Spain), Thibaut Courtois (Belgium) and Marc-Andre ter Stegen (Germany).

Two Germans in the top four, how did that happen?

There are many things about the depth of German thoroughness that explain why they are the current world champions, and the team to beat in 2018.

Head coach Joachim Low took virtually a second-string, in some cases a third-string team to Russia last summer, and won the 2017 Confederations Cup. Neuer, his No. 1 goalkeeper, was unfit for that trip anyway after breaking a metatarsal, one of the tiny bones in the foot, last April.

Neuer is still hors de combat, having broken a bone in the same foot when he attempted to return in September. His deputy, ter Stegen, has grown out of Neuer's shadow, and grown into perhaps the most impressive goalkeeper on earth on present form.

Ter Stegen, 25, is six years Neuer's junior. I call him Neuer-lite in terms of his physical size and his career to date. The German No. 1 stands 1.93m and weighs 92kg; the No. 2 is 1.87m and 85kg.

Size, of course, isn't everything. In a goalkeeper, agility, reach, mental strength are more important. And form.

Over this season so far, ter Stegen has been formidable for Barcelona. He left his Borussia Monchengladbach, his boyhood team since he was four years old, to join Barca in 2014.

The young German was persuaded by Andoni Zubizarreta, a former goalkeeping great who had become Barcelona's sporting director, that he would become the Barca No. 1 for the next decade.

A pre-season back injury meant ter Stegen missed the start of that season, and by the time he recovered, the manager Luis Enrique preferred to keep the Chile national team goalie Claudio Bravo in the league.

In fact, in keeping with the modern trend to have a league goalie and a cup goalie, Enrique occupied them both through that season.

With Bravo, Barcelona won LaLiga. With ter Stegen, they won the Spanish Cup and the Champions League.

And then Bravo joined Manchester City. Enrique left. Zubizarreta left. Ter Stegen inherited the jersey with none of the men he signed up for.

The test of character, indeed. Germans were not convinced about him, certainly not in comparison to Neuer. Yet the way that ter Stegen plays, rushing from his line and seeking to pass the ball out of defence is very much Neuer's style.

This season, behind a Barcelona defence no one would describe as watertight, ter Stegen has conceded only five goals in 18 games, saving 35 of the 40 shots against him.

Gordon Banks, an old goalie who happened to be at the draw in Moscow, can testify to the importance of having two proven keepers rather than one.

In 1970, when England met Germany in the World Cup in Mexico, Banks fell ill with a stomach upset.

His deputy Peter Bonetti was a bag of nerves. Bonetti had never played in a World Cup before and Germany scored three times. England paid the price for failing to ensure that the understudy was given previous experience at that level.

Whether Neuer makes it or not, ter Stegen is the best alternative imaginable. Germany had rotation forced upon them.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 02, 2017, with the headline 'World Cup custodians keep the faith, honouring Yashin's legacy'. Print Edition | Subscribe